Scrapple: a diner classic — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani Palmisano
The first time you try scrapple locals will advise you to go into it blind. The more you know about it, the harder it will be to convince yourself to try it. Scrapple is one of Pennsylvania’s most legendary foodstuffs, less for its taste and more for how it has managed to maintain a loyal following for more than 150 years, despite the fact that it's made of animal parts considered unfit to go in other products. Throughout its history, scrapple has elicited strong responses from all who have encountered it, causing emotionally charged arguments between those who love the mystery meat, and those who entirely detest the idea of it.
But as a Philadelphian who grew up on the stuff, I promise you that scrapple tastes much better than it sounds. If you can get past its heinous ingredients and questionable methods of preparation, you might just enjoy — hell, perhaps you’ll even love – Pennsylvania’s haggis-like breakfast staple.
The mysterious loaf of meat is made from scraps of pig (and sometimes cow) that couldn't be used in other sausages or meat products. Necks, backs, skins, hooves, snouts, livers and other undesirable parts are slowly stewed and thickened with cornmeal and buckwheat flour. To make the meat mush palatable, purveyors season it with gratuitous amounts of salt, pepper and herbs. The mixture is then put into a pan where it becomes a firm enough to later slice and fry on a griddle.
The griddle is where the magic happens. The gray loaf begins to brown as the oily fats on the outside caramelize, creating a crispy exterior. The aroma of scrapple cooking has the power to awaken a teenager deep in REM sleep. It smells like a cross between bacon and sausage, which will overpower any squeamishness you might be experiencing. The best way to enjoy scrapple is the moment it's done frying, when you can still see the oil bubbling up to its crusty surface. The flavor is a journey, satisfying all of your fatty and salty cravings, but its texture is even more complex. Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, it defies all expectations.
Despite “scrap” being the root word of scrapple, that’s not how it got its name. Scrapple’s culinary ancestor is a German dish called "panhaskröppel." ("Panhas" means "pan rabbit" and skröppel means "a slice of.") Originating in pre-Roman times, skröppel was a product born from frugality, thriftiness and the need to combat waste. Because it was a practical way to repurpose scraps of meat, panhaskröppel became one of the many dishes German colonists brought with them to the Philadelphia region in the 17th and 18th centuries.
As soon as panhaskröppel hit our shores, it became part of Atlantic American cuisine and became locally known as "scrapple." By the end of the Revolutionary War, scrapple was already part of local lore. Legend has it that both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin had their fair share of breakfast scrapple. And during a visit to Philadelphia during 1860, Edward VII of England, who was not yet king, but rather the Prince of Wales, enjoyed some scrapple which he later described as "a rather delicious native food."
But the moment scrapple went from quirky local dish to hotly contested delicacy was in the winter of 1872, when for several weeks the Letters section of the New York Times was overrun by readers expressing their deep love or utter disgust of scrapple. The Great Scrapple Correspondence of 1872 was like a slow-motion Reddit thread complete with "usernames" that aptly described each correspondent and prepared readers for what the day’s hot take on scrapple would be. This discussion was the 1872 equivalent of going viral.
EPICURE, the reader who started the conversation supplied interested readers with his wife’s recipe. PORCUPINE and A HOUSEKEEPER provided tips on how to cook it up. Some sang scrapple’s praises, like PHYSICIAN, who called it "a positive luxury, throwing the Frenchman’s pâté de foie gras entirely into the shade." Scrapple haters like BLUE BONNET called it an "abominable mixture," a "culinary fraud on the stomach," and hinted that those who ate scrapple may contract trichinosis.
Nearly 150 years later, conversations about scrapple remain quite personal. But local dishes always tend to be personal because we express our cultural identity through the foods we eat. Scrapple is part of Pennsylvania’s unique heritage, embodying the spirit of the region – Philadelphia has always been a working-class city, and scrapple is the type of food that is enjoyed by everyone regardless of status or wealth.
If Philadelphia were a food, it would be scrapple — we’re a scrappy and firm community comprised of random bits that didn’t belong anywhere else, and when thrown into the heat of a situation we get crusty on the outside but we’re still soft on the inside. Philadelphians by nature are also socially rebellious. Perhaps the reason the rest of the nation never adopted scrapple is also part of why we love it. And if you don’t like us or our scrapple, fine! It’s an indulgence we don’t have to share.